Obama shuffles top national security positions

Panetta to head defense; CIA to get Petraeus

PENTAGON BOUND The widely anticipated choice of Leon Panetta as secretary of defense puts a budget expert in charge amid the fiscal debate. PENTAGON BOUND
The widely anticipated choice of Leon Panetta as secretary of defense puts a budget expert in charge amid the fiscal debate.
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post / April 28, 2011

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WASHINGTON — President Obama will nominate CIA Director Leon Panetta as secretary of defense this week, replacing Robert M. Gates as part of a series of national security shifts that will also place Afghanistan war commander General David Petraeus in the top CIA job, US officials said.

In an announcement planned for today, Obama will also name Ryan Crocker, a five-time ambassador who retired in 2009 after wartime service in Iraq, to head the US diplomatic mission in Kabul.

Completing the changes, Marine Lieutenant General John Allen, currently deputy commander of the US Central Command, will take Petraeus’s job in Afghanistan, according to knowledgeable officials not authorized to speak on the record.

White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment on the shifts yesterday, saying that the president “will be addressing questions about personnel tomorrow.’’

The changes, which will not take effect until this summer, essentially preserve the status quo on the national security team as the administration heads into a crucial period of turmoil in the Middle East and South Asia, US military withdrawal from Iraq, and a make-or-break year in Afghanistan.

Gates’s retirement date is scheduled for June 30, when Panetta will take over at defense, if he is confirmed by the Senate. Petraeus, who will retire from the Army, will not arrive at the CIA until the fall. The agency will be headed for several months by an interim director, as has been the case a number of times during past periods of transition.

The delay in Petraeus’s move will allow him to oversee the critical summer fighting season in Afghanistan and the initial withdrawal of US combat troops pledged by Obama.

Officials said that both the numbers and configuration of units to be withdrawn will be decided under Gates prior to his retirement.

Postponement of Petraeus’s departure will also allow time for a smooth handover to Allen, officials said.

As he has in so many other cases when replacing members of his domestic policy team, Obama has essentially opted for known quantities and continuity rather than going outside the relatively small circle of senior aides that has surrounded him since he took office.

White House officials said that the decisions represented continuity during a time of turmoil, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia.

“The president, when he steps back and thinks about these people, thinks about them as a team, greater than its component parts,’’ an administration official said.

Planning for the changes has been underway for months, although they were not locked in place until Panetta accepted the Pentagon post this week. Gates, who barely knew Panetta at the beginning of the administration but has worked closely with him over the past two years, first proposed him to Obama as his replacement last fall.

Officials said that Allen, who worked closely with White House national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon when Donilon headed the powerful NSC deputies committee, was the unanimous choice of the Pentagon’s senior civilian and military leadership.

The one outlier is Crocker, who is being brought back into government after a hiatus of more than two years.

He served as ambassador to Pakistan, Syria, and elsewhere in the region in addition to Iraq, and brings a wealth of experience on the world’s most volatile region.

Crocker, who has resisted previous administration attempts to lure him back to government, was persuaded to take the job during a private meeting with Obama three weeks ago.

Petraeus and Crocker were hailed as a “dream team’’ that turned around the Iraq war beginning in 2007, when Petraeus commanded US forces there. The general was said to be en route to Washington this week to be present at the announcement.

The widely anticipated choice of Panetta also brings a budget expert to the Pentagon as the domestic debate over the country’s fiscal health increases in volume and political importance.

A former chairman of the House Budget Committee, Panetta served as director of the Office of Management and Budget during the first Clinton administration and played a major role in the successful 1993 budget negotiations with recalcitrant lawmakers.

Panetta is said to share Gates’s desire to reform the Pentagon’s procurement system and pare back its mushrooming budget. Gates, a holdover from the George W. Bush administration, has said he wants to return to private life this year.